We hardly ever had chicken for dinner growing up in Bombay, but when guests were over for a dinner party, it was a must. While it doesn’t speak volumes for our creativity that it was always the same recipe, it is certainly delicious. So here goes: the definitive Party Chicken.
This book about Sindhi cooking has something very similar in it under the heading of Seyal Chicken: The Essential Sindhi Cookbook.
Step 1: Purchase the chicken.
I usually buy thighs for this dish because they stand up better to stewing. Skinless; bone-in is better but you can go with boneless. Have the butcher cut each thigh in half. And do try to go to a meat store that sources from a farm that treats their animals with humanity. I went to Guerra Quality Meats in San Francisco, and they sell poultry from Mary’s Chickens from the Pittman family farm. Eight thighs should be good for 4 people.
Step 2: Aromatics:
Puree one large onion, 5 cloves of garlic, and an inch long piece of ginger together with a few tablespoons of water. There is no need to get a smooth puree, a fine mince is what one is looking for. If you’d rather chop by hand, be my guest.
Step 3: Oil and whole spices:
Use a pressure cooker if you have one. Heat about 3 tablespoons of oil on medium-high heat and put in the whole spices: 2 black cardamoms, 6 whole cloves, one stick of Indian cinnamon. You can also choose to put in some of the following: bay leaf; green cardamom; allspice. These will all work but give you a slightly different character. In a minute, put in the onion mixture. It will be very wet at first, but will slowly dry and caramelize. If you are new to browning onions, please read this post before continuing. Sorry, brevity has never been one of my strengths. So be it.
Above, you can see how much I started out with, after browning the onions, I ended up with this:
Step 4: In goes the chicken.
Put the chicken pieces in all at once, add some salt (more can come later), and 1 teaspoon turmeric. Stir to coat the chicken pieces with the spices and the oil mixture.
Now. This is important. We are not trying to sear the chicken. We are trying to get it to sweat out most of the liquid. In Western cooking, the standard technique is to quickly subject the surface of the meat to high heat; which creates a sear, and seals in the moisture keeping the meat moist. Not so in Indian curries. My mom taught me that one wants all the ‘chickeny liquid’ to be gone — so the idea is to keep cooking, stirring, pushing the pieces around; they will first become opaque as the protein is denatured; then, they will start to sweat and shrink. A luscious gravy will start to form around the shrunken chicken pieces. Keep it going for at least 20 minutes on medium heat.
Above, you can see how big the thighs were to start with, below is what I ended up with. This is with no additions, just the cooking of chicken, uncovered, stirring, for 20 minutes.
Isn’t the chicken going to be dry and leathery? No, because of the braising that is about to occur, which pulls moisture back in, but this time, it is Our liquid with Our spices, not the ‘chickeny liquid’.
Step 5: Liquid and stewing:
One can use chopped tomatoes; one can use a mixture of water and some vinegar; but I used yogurt. Take about a cup and a half of yogurt and first whisk it to break the curds. Put that into the pressure cooker along with some whole green chilies, stems removed, and a cut through the middle; some red chili powder; half a tablespoon coriander powder; and, importantly, salt to taste. Stir to submerge the chicken pieces, like so:
Cover and pressure cook for 15 minutes. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, cover tightly, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 45 minutes.
This is the braising process, during which the spiced liquid is both tenderizing and flavoring the meat. When you open the lid, you will see some of the oil separated, and the gravy is much darker:
Step 6: De-fatting and garnishing.
De-fat the gravy by scooping some of the oil off, if you like; pull out the whole spices with tongs, if you like; sprinkle some garam masala on top; garnish with minced cilantro.